If you’re reading this article, you may be in the unfortunate position of having spilled thermal paste onto your motherboard, or you may have noticed that thermal paste has worked its way into your CPU socket.
Perhaps your computer won’t even boot.
If this is the case, don’t despair!
It’s possible to remove thermal paste from unwanted areas on your CPU or motherboard. It’s a delicate process and requires patience, but we’ll walk you through the required steps.
Is the Thermal Paste Conductive?
First, it’s good to know whether you have an electrically conductive paste or not. If your paste is ceramic-based, it’s not electrically conductive, so you don’t have to worry about it short-circuiting adjacent pins on your CPU or other motherboard components.
P.S. – We have a guide to the types of thermal paste. It covers everything you need to know about thermal pastes, along with which types to avoid.
However, if the paste gets in between the CPU socket and pins, it can physically prevent the pins from making contact with the socket. If this happens your computer may not boot, may crash unexpectedly, or just may not operate properly.
If you have a carbon-based thermal paste, it will have extremely low electrical conductivity; so low that it shouldn’t present a danger of short-circuiting components. Still, it’s good to read the specifications for your paste to know for sure whether short-circuiting is a danger.
If your paste is metal-based, it is electrically conductive and can therefore short-circuit CPU pins and other components. It’s possible that short-circuits can cause permanent damage to your computer, so until you’ve cleaned up the unwanted paste it’s best not to power up your computer.
Just like ceramic-based paste, metal-based paste can also get into unwanted areas and prevent physical contact between the CPU socket and pins, so it’s best to remove any excess paste you see.
Checking Nearby Components
The CPU isn’t the only thing to worry about; depending on the magnitude of the spill, you may have gotten thermal paste onto other nearby components on the motherboard.
Inductors, capacitors, resistors, and various integrated circuits (IC’s) are just a few of the components that, if short-circuited by conductive thermal paste, could lead to a malfunctioning computer.
If your paste isn’t conductive, this isn’t really something you need to worry about, but you can still clean it if the looks bother you.
CPU Socket Types
If you’ve got thermal paste in your CPU socket, you’ll need to remove it and clean the socket. Depending on the type of socket you have, the materials and cleaning technique will differ. There are two basic types of CPU socket:
1. Pin Grid Array (PGA)
The pin grid array socket (PGA) is basically a two-dimensional array of holes that mate with the pins on your CPU. In electrical contact terminology, the CPU can be thought of as the “male” component and the socket can be thought of as the “female” component.
There are two possible dangers in this configuration.
One is that thermal paste can get into the holes in the socket. If the paste is non-conductive, it can block the CPU pins from making electrical contact with the socket. Even if the paste is conductive, if it gets into the socket holes it can prevent the CPU from mating flush (flatly with no space in between) with the socket, preventing other pins from making electrical contact with the socket.
The second danger is that any paste, whether it’s conductive or not, can get onto the surface of the socket and therefore also prevent the CPU from mating flush with it.
All of these scenarios will lead to improper operation of the CPU or failure to boot. If you have an AMD Ryzen series CPU, it likely uses a PGA socket.
2. Land Grid Array (LGA)
The land grid array socket (LGA) is basically the reverse of the pin grid array; it has a two-dimensional array of pins that mate with the holes on a CPU. In this arrangement, the socket is the “male” component and the CPU is the “female”.
The dangers here are similar to those of the PGA socket, with the one difference that paste can find its way into the holes of the CPU rather than the socket. If you have an Intel Core series CPU, it likely uses an LGA socket.
The first thing to know about cleaning anything on your motherboard is to never use water. Water is electrically conductive enough to short-circuit and destroy your motherboard. There is a wide array of products specifically designed to clean motherboards and other sensitive electronics.
Furthermore, there are products designed to specifically clean and remove thermal paste. In this section we’ll cover what you need to clean your CPU and motherboard, whether you have a PGA socket or an LGA one.
1. Cleaning agent
You have a few different choices for cleaning agents, depending on what you have access to and your time frame. The most common and readily available option is isopropyl alcohol. If you use isopropyl alcohol, try to find a product with 70% alcohol or higher; 90% is preferable. The reason for this is that the higher the percentage of alcohol your product has, the less residue it will leave behind, which is better for electrical and thermal conductivity.
Another option is acetone, a common ingredient in many nail polish removers. A word of caution here: it it not recommended that you use nail polish remover as a substitute for acetone! Nail polish remover may contain oils, which will leave behind a residue detrimental to electrical and thermal conductivity.
You may be able to get away with nail polish remover labeled as “100% acetone” but it’s not worth the risk. If you’re going to use acetone, get the pure stuff.
If you have the time to order it, or if you have access to a well-stocked computer supply store, the third option is the best: the Arcticlean cleaning kit (here’s a link to it). This kit is made by Arctic Silver, a respected brand of thermal paste. It actually consists of two components: (1) an emulsifying agent to suspend the thermal paste particles for easy removal, and (2) a purification component to remove any residue and prepare the surface for the application of new thermal paste. Arcticlean 1 does leave some residue, so if you use it it’s important that you follow up with an application of Arcticlean 2.
Other Materials You’ll Need
- Extra-thin toothpicks
- Magnifying glass
How to Clean Thermal Paste off of CPU
These tips will focus on cleaning the CPU and/or its socket, since those are the most challenging components to clean.
1. Cleaning pins on an LGA socket or CPU
For this step, you’ll need your cleaning agent (isopropyl alcohol, acetone, or Arcticlean 1), Q-tips, and possibly a magnifying glass. You’re basically going to use the cleaner and Q-tips to gently remove the paste from the pins. The pins are very fine and can bend or break easily so you’ll need to be careful when doing this.
Additionally, the pins will be at roughly a 45-degree angle, not straight up and down, so you may want to use a magnifying glass to see which way the pins are tilting. Once you know this, remember it, because it’s the direction in which you’ll move the Q-tip along the pin to remove paste. If you go “against the grain” of the pins they may bend or break.
To begin, apply a small amount of cleaner to the socket or CPU, wherever you see paste. If using Arcticlean, simply squeeze a few drops from the bottle; if using isopropyl alcohol or acetone you may want to use an eye dropper to apply drops one at a time. Once the cleaner has been applied, give it about 5 minutes to ensure that the paste is emulsified.
After 5 minutes, you can begin cleaning the pins. Gently rub the Q-tip along each pin in the direction of the pins. Work your way down each row of pins in this manner, then move on to the next row. If you see a lot of paste accumulating on the Q-tip, change to a clean Q-tip. Work your way through all of the rows in this manner.
Next, you’ll need to mop up any excess cleaning fluid. Place a clean Q-tip at the tip of a pin and leave it there for a moment. The cleaning fluid will “wick up” and be absorbed into the Q-tip. Continue through each pin in this manner, replacing the Q-tip when it becomes saturated.
At this point if there is still unwanted paste on the socket or CPU, repeat the cleaning and mopping process again. You may need to do this two or three times to get the results you want.
2. Cleaning holes on a PGA socket or CPU
This process is similar to cleaning an LGA socket, except instead of rubbing the paste off of pins, you’re trying to extract it from holes. For this you’ll need the extra-fine toothpicks.
Begin by applying cleaning fluid to the socket or CPU, just as in Step 1, wherever you see or suspect there may be paste. Wait about 5 minutes to ensure proper emulsification.
Next, insert a toothpick, slowly and gently, into the first hole until you feel any resistance. When you feel resistance, stop and then slowly remove the toothpick. In doing this, some of the emulsified paste will stick to the toothpick and some will be pushed out of the hole. Use a clean Q-tip to mop up any emulsified paste from around the hole.
Work your way through all of the holes in this manner, wiping off the toothpick or switching to a new one when necessary. Make sure to mop up all excess cleaning fluid when you’re finished.
As in Step 1, you may have to repeat this cleaning and mopping process two or three times to ensure all of the unwanted paste is removed.
3. Purify the surfaces
If you are using the Arcticlean kit this step is essential; if you are using isopropyl alcohol or acetone you can skip it if desired. If you are performing this step make sure you first let all surfaces dry for 24 hours after cleaning.
For LGA sockets or CPU pins, apply a couple of drops of Arcticlean 2 to a Q-tip. Run the Q-tip gently along the pins in the proper direction. If you notice any paste on the Q-tip you should go back to the cleaning step, as there should be no residual paste. Otherwise continue until you’ve purified all of the pins. Once finished, run a clean Q-tip along the pins to soak up any excess fluid.
For PGA sockets or CPU holes, simply apply a couple of drops of Arcticlean 2 to a Q-tip and press it into each hole. If you notice any paste on the Q-tip, go back to the cleaning step, but otherwise work your way though each hole. Once finished, press a clean Q-tip onto each hole to wick up any excess fluid.
Finally, let everything dry for 24 hours, then reinstall the CPU.
Cleaning Other Areas of the Motherboard
If there is unwanted paste on other components or areas of the motherboard, you can clean them in the same manner described above. Just apply cleaning fluid, let it emulsify, then remove it with a Q-tip or lint-free cloth. If using Arcticlean, make sure to perform the purification step too. Remember that if your thermal paste is non-conductive, it probably won’t present a problem to other components on the motherboard, but feel free to clean it for aesthetic purposes if desired.
Hopefully this guide has educated you on the kinds of problems thermal paste can cause when it makes its way into unwanted areas. Fortunately, you should now be equipped to clean paste from your CPU, socket, and other components on your motherboard.
While cleaning can be a delicate process, with a little time and patience you can be sure to avoid any paste-related problems.